Chris Crass’s open letter to white Unitarian Universalists struggling with their commitment to Black Lives Matter.
Our commitment to living the values of our faith is being tested. We are standing in the storm of reaction against the Black Lives Matter movement. Now is the time when we must ask ourselves, “do we become even more out and proud for racial justice or do we shrink down in retreat?”
With FOX News leading a media frenzy denouncing the Black Lives Matter movement as a hate group, as terrorists, as anti-white, some of us are retreating from wearing Black Lives Matter buttons and some of us are questioning whether or not to take down the Black Lives Matter banners from our churches.
It would be easy for me to say all of the white UUs who are faltering are just falling back into their white privilege, are sinking back into their liberal white racism. It would be easy for me to distance myself and feel superior. It is much harder for me to say, that I too, as a white Unitarian Universalist, have been scared. After months of wearing my Black Lives Matter button, I found myself second-guessing whether to wear it.
What if I am challenged at the grocery store or walking in the park with my son. It was much easier to wear my button after the latest police murder of an unarmed Black person. Filled with anger and a desire to “do something”, I wore my button with defiance to racism and a commitment to racial justice.
I held my button in my hand, and I knew that all of this is much bigger than buttons and banners. This is about breaking a centuries old code of white silence and white consent for anti-Black racist violence and institutional white supremacy and its legal and cultural dispersal of white privilege and white entitlement. Entitlement to safety and comfort, at the expense of people of color having the same. Entitlement to our children not needing to think about the color of their skin or wondering if the color of their skin puts them at risk of socially- and state-sanctioned violence.
This is about choosing what side of justice we put our bodies on. And like other white UUs, I don’t want to be part of this racist society. I want to stand in the tradition of Unitarian Universalist abolitionists and Civil Rights workers, knowing that even within our faith tradition it has not always been easy. I want to stand on the side of love, like we did on Marriage Equality, even when it was illegal in every state and scary for many of us to be publicly out for LGBT rights.
The Black Lives Matter movement is the leading struggle for racial justice of our times. It is a movement led by Black people who are women, queer, youth, working class, including Black UUs around the country. It is a movement to end institutional racism and to respect the inherent worth and dignity of all people. It is a movement for collective liberation.
And it is a movement that puts a challenge to every white person who believes themselves a proponent of racial equality, every white person inspired by the Civil Rights movement, every white person who believes they would be on the right side of history if an injustice of great magnitude were taking place.
The movement is a challenge to put our values into practice, not just when it is easy, but also when it is hard. It is the challenge to be honest with ourselves and admit that people who espouse All Lives Matter, even in our congregations, aren’t always confused, in fact, often they are quite clear.
The All Lives Matter reaction, just like the white people who decried Civil Rights as “special rights” in the 1960s, is based in white resent and anger towards assertions of Black equality and Black humanity, particularly when those assertions disrupt the “normal (racially unequal) order”.
We are living in Black Lives Matter times. Times where a movement of everyday people with Black people in the lead is on-the-move, opposing injustices of a great magnitude. To help me have courage in these times, I have created a ritual out of putting on my Black Lives Matter button, and I invite you to create one for yourself, as well.
I put on my Black Lives Matter button as a ritual of re-dedicating myself to daily action for racial justice.
I hold my button between my hands and pray. I pray for the movement to continuing growing more and more powerful. I pray that more and more white people awaken from the nightmare of white supremacy and join the fight for the dream of beloved community.
I pray and call forward the names of ancestors from Harriet Tubman and William Lloyd Garrison to Ella Baker and Anne Braden. I pray for the leadership of Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, Elandria Williams, Carla Wallace, Tufara Muhammad, Meredith Martin-Moates, Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, Rev. Ashley Horan, Leslie Mac, Ash-Lee Henderson, and the many others who are building this deeply life-affirming movement, everyday.
I pray that the racist nightmare against communities of color ends. I reflect on the moments I’m scared wearing this button, recognize how miniscule it is, and mediate on the daily devastation of anti-Black racism on the lives of Black people in my life and in society.
And then I pray for my four year old son, River, and his little one-month old brother, August. I remember how when I grew up, the most vocal people in the white community speaking about race, were racists. I pray that my sons grow up with courageous, passionate, visionary, white anti-racists leaders in every part of this society.
I pray that white UUs, in the hundreds of thousands act in the tradition of white UU Civil Rights martyrs Viola Liuzzo and James Reeb, and not join in the All Lives Matter reaction and act from the tradition of white racism that killed them.
I re-dedicate myself to actively support UU congregations and members around the country who are standing on the side of Black Lives Matter through banners, weekly vigils, fundraising for Black-led racial justice organizing in their community, inviting Black Lives Matter leaders to preach at their pulpit, writing op-eds for the local newspaper, holding press conferences when their banners are vandalized, and bringing their spiritual and religious leadership into the streets for marches and civil disobedience.
I spoke with a UU minister of a majority white congregation who has had their Black Lives Matter banner vandalized multiple times and who have been in the national press as a result. Tears filled my eyes as I listened to her talk about how the congregation is struggling through fear of feeling under attack, confronting their white privilege, and despite the racist backlash, staying true to their values.
We talked about this being the moment for her congregation, and white UUs throughout our denomination, to either open their hearts more fully and act with courage, or move back into white silence, white consent and white privilege. These are the times that our church was intended for, to help us act with courage in the face of fear and hate.
These are the times for us to use our spiritual traditions and rituals and act as a faith, to join the leading movement for racial justice of our time and weather the storm together. We must weather the storm, so we can experience the rainbow of collective liberation. And around our faith today, there are tens of thousands of UUs – Black UUs, UUs of color, white UUs – who are on-the-move for Black Lives Matter. Our church is in the streets and our faith calls us into prophetic action. This is our mission in practice.
We can do this! And to help, here are five suggestions for those of us who are working through fear and uncertainty to make a commitment to Black Lives Matter, and then ten suggestions for those who have been committed and want to step up their involvement in the movement.
For those of us working through fear and uncertainty:
- Just as you would tell a friend and someone in your family to stop listening to FOX news and the corporate media about the realities of Climate Change, stop listening to them about what the Black Lives Matter movement is really about. Look for essays and interviews with Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, General Assembly key note speaker Cornel West, and Rev. Osagyefo Sekou. Read this interview with Unitaran Universalist minister Ashley Horan, “A Theology of Liberation to Inspire White Anti-Racist Organizing”: http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/31032-a-theology-of-liberation-to-inspire-white-anti-racist-organizing. And this interview with United Church of Christ minister Anne Dunlap: http://wagingnonviolence.org/feature/sacredness-working-end-white-supremacy-conversation-rev-anne-dunlap/. Then read Then Read Kenny Wiley’s “A Unitarian Universalist Black Live Matter Theology: http://kennywiley.com/2015/03/26/a-unitarian-universalist-black-lives-matter-theology/.
- Reach out to another white person in your congregation who is involved in Black Lives Matter and racial justice issues. Ask if there is a time where you could get together to hear more about their own journey with this work and ask for support.
- Reach out to your minister or lay leaders in the congregation for pastor care as you work through what is holding you back.Let our opposition create opportunities to deepen our work, and amplify our voices, but to do so, we must support members of the congregation to speak in their own voice about why they are taking this stand. You can do this by role playing difficult conversations and sharing talking points during a special community discussion, and create opportunities for members of the congregation to share reflections from challenging moments in Sunday services. Facing this racist opposition, by drawing on our theology and the power of our spiritual community, is an opportunity to collectively live our faith for justice.
- Look for opportunities at church for discussion groups, film nights, or a group of people to go to the next Black Lives Matter rally with.
- Pray, sing, meditate, go for a walk somewhere beautiful, and take time to draw inspiration from the sacred and gather your courage and fortitude to work against the death culture of white supremacy, knowing that this is the path towards beloved community.
For those of us who want to step up our work for Black Lives Matter:
- Start wearing Black Lives Matter buttons and t-shirts, and get extras to share with friends, family and people in your congregation. Develop your own ritual of putting on the button as a commitment to taking daily acts for racial justice and Black liberation. Better yet, get a group of people together in your church to pitch in and order a few hundred buttons online. Ask your minister if a special message can be given at a Sunday service about the ritual of the button and distribute them to the congregation. If there are enough, ask each member of the church to take an extra button to give to someone in their lives as an act of building the base of support for Black Lives Matter. You can order buttons from “Working Against Racism” which is a multiracial group of Black Lives Matter activists who for reasons of geography or disability, cannot be part of a face-to-face group, and are focused on visibility efforts, so you can contact email@example.com for ordering info and prices.
- Hang a Black Lives Matter banner in front of your church as a tool for internal and external consciousness raising and as an act of concrete solidarity. Build a core of people who strongly support this and are prepared to speak on why this should be done. Recruit and build support as many people who have formal and informal influence/power in the church. Find out what process is needed to go through to make this happen. Ask other congregations who have hung banners for advice on how to successfully move forward in your congregation. Hold lead up discussions before the vote to raise awareness internally in the congregation. Then hang the banner to show solidarity externally, and embolden the congregation to live into what that statement calls for.
- Prepare for the racist backlash to the banner by developing the anti-racist leadership of the congregation. As you know, many UU churches have had their Black Lives Matter banners vandalized or stolen, and many have received an out pouring of racist reaction and even threats for putting up the banner. In your work building support for the banner, also build up the anti-racist resilience of the congregation to face this opposition with courage and to use the racist opposition as an opportunity to speak even more loudly in your community for racial justice. For example many UU churches have held press conferences after their banners were vandalized and they spoke powerful about why they hung the banner, and what it means as religious community to be on the side of love and Black Lives Matter.
- Invite Black leaders in this new movement, from your local community or region, to give a sermon at the church and give the speaker an honorarium of between $500-1000. Have church leaders promote this sermon and preach the week before about why this will be an important service for the community. Use this as an opportunity to demonstrate public commitment of the congregation to Black Lives Matter, and also deepen the understanding of what the movement is about, in the congregation. Also host white anti-racist leaders who are involved in Black Lives Matter. Invite white anti-racists who can help speak to the journey of becoming white anti-racists and provide concrete examples of white people taking action for racial justice.
- Encourage congregation to show up and participate in local/regional marches, demonstrations and vigils. Or hold your own regular vigil, as many UU churches are doing.. Ask the minister or others with sway in the church to speak in the services the week before the march/action on how this is a moment to practice our faith in public. Do a prep training on going to marches/actions to help support those who have never gone before. Go as a group, pray/sing before and after, as a way of helping create church in the streets. Our goal is to be powerful together for justice, to help build courage over fear, and to move our faith, effectively, into action for Black Lives Matter.
- Encourage congregations to reach out to local Black Lives Matter organizers and activists and offer the congregation as a free meeting and event space. This could also include the congregation providing food, childcare and other support for those meetings and events – which also creates opportunities for people in the congregation to be involved who might not want to go to a march, but want to show up in other ways. And it’s a good way to build relationships between congregation and leaders/organizers in the Black Lives Matter movement.
- Hold fundraisers at the church for local, regional and national Black Lives Matter movement efforts. Use this as an opportunity for members of the congregation to invite people from their person networks to come. This can be a way to raise money to support Black-led work, and build up the confidence of the congregation to speak to people beyond the church about why the movement for Black Lives is so important. Fundraisers are also a way to build up beloved community united for racial justice.
- Provide money and resources to support youth and young adult anti-racist/racial justice activists in your church to organize their networks for Black Lives Matter. Support the youth groups in your church to hold group discussions and go to marches and demonstrations together. The youth and young adults in our churches are often in the lead on anti-racism and racial justice, be sure to include their leadership in your efforts as well as bring support to following their leadership in the efforts they are mobilizing. It is important for our denomination to remember and honor that it was the youth caucus at the 2015 General Assembly in Portland that led the effort to pass the Action of Immediate Witness in support of Black Lives Matter.
- Get involved with your local chapter of the national white anti-racist network, Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ). Go to http://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/ for outstanding white anti-racist organizing resources and to either find a local contact. Unitarian Universalists have been involved in SURJ since the beginning and many UU individuals and congregations are heavily involved around the country. This is a great way to get white racial justice activists in the church involved in organizing the broader white community with the goal of uniting white people to the multiracial movement for justice.
- Love yourself and love the people around you dedicated to this work. Take moments to pause and express gratitude and appreciation to yourself for working through the challenges you have faced and build your internal power for the challenges a head. Take moments to express love and gratitude to the people around you who inspire you, who keep you moving when it gets hard, who you see taking risks, who you are thankful to be in the world and in this work with. White supremacy and systems of supremacy depend on us feeling hopeless and alienated. Develop spiritual rituals of defiance to this divide and rule strategy and use gratitude and appreciation to open your heart to possibility and the beautiful connections we make in the work of building a new way towards collective liberation.
Thank you to Unitarian Universalists Nora Rasman, Leslie Mac, and Drew MacFadyen for their feedback on this letter. And thank you to the thousands of UU leaders around the country who are moving our faith and our country towards racial justice.
Photo: flickr/PROTim Pierce